By the year 2011, the space shuttles will be retired, and with them an era will be brought to a close. It's an era that has seen space exploration reach incredible highs and, occasionally, devastating lows. But with the end comes new beginnings, and so we begin the era of the Constellation Project.
For some, the Constellation project appears more of a step back, then a step forward. We leave the incredible technological achievement of the space shuttle, and return to what, at least looks like, the 60s era technology of the space capsule. Is this really the direction that we want to head?
The design of the Orion space vehicle is similar to that of the Apollo vehicle. It consists of a crew module as well as a service module. Naturally the crew module is the actual vehicle that will carry the astronauts and any payload that they are transporting, while the service module will supply the power and propulsion for the craft.
A New Generation Of Crew Module
The basic appearance of the new space capsule, known as the Orion Crew Module, bares a striking resemblance to the former Apollo capsules. But a more detailed look reveals that there is much that separates it from the old technology.
- While the overall shape of the crew module is similar to that of the Apollo missions, it is in fact much large. The interior volume is 2.5 times larger than that of the old design. This allows the crew module to carry 4 - 6 astronauts, compared to the Apollo’s 3 crew member limit (the shuttle can carry up to 7).
- Naturally the computing systems onboard the Orion Crew Module will be far more advanced than those found on the previous craft. This will be beneficial in a number of ways. This will afford the astronauts the opportunity to carry out more complex tasks as well as monitor and record their mission with much greater ease and detail. Also, there are maneuvers that they will be able to implement, such as automatic docking procedures with the space station as well as automated reentry systems, that previous Apollo missions could never have achieved. This makes the missions both safer as well as more versatile.
- There will be more control and over the atmosphere (a mixture of nitrogen and oxygen) and pressure. This should allow the astronauts to be more comfortable in their surroundings. Also, and this is sure to be a favorite among the astronauts, a far more advanced (and sanitary) waste management system will be implemented. The “Apollo bag” system was much maligned by past astronauts.
- And perhaps the most fiscally important improvement is that the new crew modules will be reusable for up to 10 flights. This is possible because the crew module will use an outer skin design and construction similar to that of the current Shuttle’s external fuel tank. This will give the crew module the strength and rigidity that it requires, but will make it lighter than both the Apollo module and Shuttle.
So, while the basic design of the Orion Crew Module may appear similar to that of the Apollo missions, it actually contains far more advanced technology and is even more versatile than the Shuttle. Specifically, the Shuttle was only designed to travel in low Earth orbit. The Orion Crew Module will be able to take astronauts to the Moon, and even on to Mars.
However, there are some drawbacks. The most common complaint about the new crew module system is that it lacks the payload capabilities of the current Shuttle when making trips to low Earth orbit and the space station. Are we sacrificing our ability to effectively launch payloads and deliver supplies to the space station?
Well, yes and no. It is true that it will be more difficult to transport large items into low Earth orbit and to deliver large pieces of infrastructure to the space station -- this is why NASA has been focused on completing its commitments to the space station before the Shuttle retires next year. However, there are other ways to launch payloads into space besides taking them up in the shuttle, such as launching them inside a rocket and having the deployed once low Earth orbit is reached. Also, new technologies like the space elevator are under development which would allow NASA to accomplish the same tasks at a fraction of the cost.
And as technology improves this will become a mute point. The next generation of satellites and telescopes will be more reliable and in less need to repair once they are in space. For instance, NASA spent lots of time and money sending astronauts to repair the Hubble space telescope. However, Hubble’s replacement, the James Webb telescope will fly about a million miles above the Earth’s surface. Considering the Hubble is only about 350 miles above the Earth, this clearly places the James Webb out of reach if anything goes wrong. But this is not a problem, since NASA has learned from its mistakes and will be able to build much more reliable instruments.
As we have come to better understand how to reliably build orbiting technology, the need to send repair missions has, and will continue to, diminish. So we should not need the capabilities that the Shuttle offered.